Cornell Costume and Textile Collection Represents Cultures of Seven Continents

By Winter, Metta | Human Ecology, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Cornell Costume and Textile Collection Represents Cultures of Seven Continents


Winter, Metta, Human Ecology


While on tour in 1869, Mark Twain paused to his have photograph taken in Alexandria, Egypt. In honor of the occasion, he and Charles Langdon--Twain's future brother-in-law, whom he had met on the trip--donned dragoman's suits of Ottoman Turkish style.

Thanks to the meticulous preservation techniques of the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, the suit that Langdon wore--along with the original photograph of him, Twain, and their interpreter--can be seen by the public beginning this spring at the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Charlotte Jirousek, an associate professor in the Department of Textiles and Apparel and curator of the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, will speak at a symposium planned in connection with the exhibit.

A large number of Orientalist pieces were donated to the Cornell collection by the Langdon family, says Jirousek. "These items tell much about the taste of an intellectual, artsy household in the late nineteenth century," she says.

Clothing reveals aspects of a family in a more intimate way than other objects because it sensitively represents details of lifestyle and how people feel about themselves, Jirousek explains. For example, the romanticism of Twain and his wife Olivia, nee Langdon, is evidenced by their preference for varying shades of purple--beginning with the gown she wore when she first met Twain. Throughout her life, Olivia favored purple and lilac because of the colors' sentimental connection with their first meeting. It is reported that he owned a cape lined in lilac silk.

The Langdon family's contribution is a fine example of the initial premise of the collection that "dress is a very sensitive measure of the cultural values of any particular time and place," says Jirousek. "We communicate who we are by how we dress." The collection's 11,000 items of men's, women's, and children's apparel (including undergarments, accessories, shoes, and handbags), ethnographic textiles, and costumes date from the eighteenth century to the present. They come from every continent and present a broad representation of world cultures, ranging, for example, from Eleanor Roosevelt's 1937 inaugual gown, to a complete Balinese dancer's costume of the same period (including the headdress made of coconut shell, tin, paper, and bamboo), to the everyday clothing of handspun and handwoven wool worn by Kurdish villagers in 1914, to a costume of kente cloth, handwoven by the personal weaver of Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah, the first democratically elected leader in Africa, in 1957. …

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